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Gardening Columns

For the Love of Alliums

First published on on October 22, 2009, by Suzanne DeJohn

Looking for some eye-catching, easy-care, hardy, deer- and rodent-resistant plants for your garden? Look no further than the ornamental alliums. Like daffodils and tulips, alliums grow from bulbs, and now's the time to plant them for blooms in late spring to mid summer. 

Relatives of onions, garlic, and chives, ornamental alliums have strappy leaves and produce more or less round clusters of small flowers atop leafless, tubular stems. Like other bulbs, alliums need well drained soil and once established need little or no supplemental irrigation. Alliums are resistant to damage by deer as well as by voles and other rodents. 

Choose varieties carefully. Some produce huge, brightly colored blooms that might overwhelm other plants. Others produce delicate blooms that could get lost among more flamboyant neighbors. Alliums bloom in late spring to mid summer, depending on the variety, so with carefully planning you can have alliums in bloom for several months.

Plant ornamental alliums in a site that receives full sun for the best flowering. Like other bulbs, the foliage of alliums will begin to die back after flowering, so plant them among leafy perennials that will hide the yellowing leaves. Consider planting the bulbs in raised beds if drainage is less than ideal. And you might try planting them around the perimeter of tulips and other bulbs that are attractive to rodents in the hopes that the alliums will deter the critters from sensing or reaching the tastier bulbs within.

Here's a rundown of a few alliums to consider:

Allium christophii. Called Star of Persia, you have to see this plant to believe it. Imagine a fireworks display -- one of those perfectly symmetrical starburst ones -- in a silvery amethyst color and you'll get a hint. The individulal florets are delicate and star-shaped, and together they form a loosely packed, see-through, softball-sized bloom atop 20-inch stems. Plant this where you can enjoy the flowers up close, and be sure to plant enough so you can cut some for bouquets. This is my favorite.

Allium 'Globemaster'. This is one of those ridiculous, Dr. Suess-type flowers. Huge -- and I mean 10-inches-across huge -- dense flowerheads consist of up to 1000 tightly packed pink-purple florets and perch atop 3-foot stems. This one will stop traffic and overwhelm anything in its midst. 'Gladiator' and 'Ambassador' are similar but with slightly smaller -- softball-sized -- flowerheads. 

Allium caeruleum. At the other end of the bloom size scale, this species sports quarter-sized flowerhead in a striking clear blue on 18-inch stems. Plant these in groups for the most impact; they'll quickly multiply to form a striking early summer display.

Allium atropurpureum. The deep maroon flowers on this species could get lost if planted in front of dark-leaved plants, but the color contrasts beautifully with bright foliage and flowers. Plant with other late-spring to early-summer flowers, like dianthus. As cut flowers this allium adds drama to bouquets. 

Allium sphaerocephalon. Going by the common name drumstick allium, this variety produces dark purple-maroon, tightly packed flowerheads in early to mid summer. It's usually one of the least expensive species per bulb, so plant them in drifts among light-colored flowers. 

"Fireworks" allium. This isn't a variety name but rather a description of the appearance of the bulbs. Individual florets appear at the ends of long flower stalks, some upright, some drooping. Allium mixes sold under this description often includeA. carinatum (purple flowers) and A. flavum (yellow flowers).

Others to try: 

White flowers: 'White Giant', Allium neapolitanum, 'Mount Everest', 'Ivory Queen'
Pink flowers: Allium oreophilumA. unifoliumA. roseum, 'Summer Dreamer'
Yellow flowers: Allium moly



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